JS Tip 73: From the Writing Workshops: Using Semicolons

Mike Gitzendanner of WesTech Engineering in Chicago asked “How—exactly—do you use semicolons?”

Semicolons are cool. Semicolons are supercommas.

Two—and only two—uses for semicolons:

Connect two closely related complete thoughts.

            The pump failed. The control room flooded.

Okay. Two separate, but closely related, complete thoughts. Connect the two with a semicolon:

            The pump failed; the control room flooded.

You’re emphasizing the connection. You’re drawing the two ideas closer together.

Separate items in a series that already contain commas.

You’re writing to your childhood pen-pal Dieter in Deutschland. You’re telling him about your recent vacation.

            We visited Taos, New Mexico, Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California.

Dieter knows nothing about United States geography. How many places does he figure you visited? Five? Six?  

Separate the items with a semicolon:

            We visited Taos, New Mexico; Phoenix, Arizona; and Los Angeles, California.

Dieter now understands three places, each with a comma, separated by a semicolon.

Or, as we said, a supercomma.

What are your punctuation problems? Let us know. We’ll try to answer your questions in a later Tip. Hey. We love this stuff.